Metrobus system ridership falls below projection

Metro fares boxes
By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Metro's bus ridership dropped sharply in the first two months of the fiscal year that began in July, falling 9 percent below the budget projection and last year's total for the same period, according to Metro data.

The trend continues a pattern of dwindling bus ridership and revenue that has contributed to growing budget deficits at Metro. Bus riders took 123.7 million trips in fiscal 2010, 10 million fewer trips compared with the prior year, for a decline of 7.6 percent.

The loss of revenue portends another difficult budget year for Metro, according to Jim Graham, a member of Metro's board of directors.

"I shudder at what we are going to have to do, because our options are fewer and fewer and more and more unattractive and negative in impact," said Graham. Metro's operating budget deficit for 2012 already includes millions in losses caused by sharply reduced revenue and snow removal costs during last winter's snowstorms.

Metro last summer launched the biggest fare increase in the history of the transit agency - nearly $109 million worth of fare hikes - to close a $189 million gap in its operating budget for this year. The bus boarding charge went up 20 percent, from $1.25 to $1.50, for SmarTrip users and 26 percent, from $1.35 to $1.70, for cash customers.

Board member Mortimer Downey said he was concerned about the drop in bus ridership, but said more analysis of routes, regions, and times is needed. "Typically there is a sharp fall-off of ridership when a fare increase happens," he said. "I think there may have been a little optimism in expecting growth in bus ridership."

Metro officials have attributed the lower-than-expected ridership mainly to the recession and unemployment.

"We have seen a direct correlation between unemployment and ridership," said Metro spokesman Reggie Woodruff, noting that unemployment in the District was at 10.3 percent in July. "Metro had projected the economy to improve at a greater rate than it has, which continues to impact our ridership on all modes," he said.

Rail ridership so far this fiscal year is slightly higher than a year prior.

"It's very much a function of the economy," said Graham. "People are just not riding buses because they don't have jobs to go to," he said.

The hike in bus fares is also having an impact, he said, pointing in particular to the increase in the cost of weekly bus passes from $11 to $15. "That was foisted upon us and is hitting the lower-income riders hard," he said.

The DC Circulator may also be drawing riders away from Metrobus on some routes, he said. "The DC Circulator's $1 fare will increasingly be a magnet on the routes that are shared with Metrobus," he said.

DC Circulator, which added two routes in spring 2009 - including one that replaced a Metrobus line - has experienced growing ridership, according to Aaron W. Overman of the D.C. Department of Transportation. He said while the Circulator could be drawing riders from Metro, many Circulator riders were switching from cars.

Metro faces some technical difficulties in tracking bus ridership day-to-day, in part because the fare software system is slow to provide the data required to make a daily calculation, according to Woodruff.

Metro's Web site displays only general estimates of bus riders that often remain unchanged for months.

Broken bus fare boxes are contributing to lost revenue to some extent, but Metro could not supply data on the problem requested a week ago.

"We've got to get our arms around it, we need the revenue," Downey said.

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